The Mobilization of Women in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina: An Interview with Dr. Marie Berry

interview on peace processes with Marie Berry

Dr. Marie Berry is an Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, where she is an affiliate of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy. She is the Co-Director of the Inclusive Global Leadership Initiative (IGLI). Her first book, War, Women, and Power: From Violence to Mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Cambridge University Press 2018), examines the impact of war and genocide on women’s political mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia.  Her work examining women’s political mobilization, leadership, and peacebuilding efforts is critical to the vision of Our Secure Future for a more peaceful future transformed by women’s full participation.


So much of your research focuses on women’s participation in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the peace processes in both of these countries took place before the passing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325.  What significant change do you think UNSCR 1325 brings to the field of Women, Peace and Security? What do you think might have been different about peace accords in these two cases if UNSCR 1325 had already been passed?

The primary finding of my research is that war can catalyze women’s political mobilization. I illustrate how demographic, economic, and cultural shifts allowed women to claim rights and exercise power in ways that would have been infeasible before the violence. Rwanda and Bosnia are instructive cases, as while the wars in each were profoundly destructive, they were also transformative for the way women mobilized in their households, communities, and at the national political level.

In both cases it is particularly discouraging that women were largely shut out of the post-war rebuilding process.In Bosnia, women were completely excluded from the internationally-brokered Dayton Peace Accords. Many analysts have lamented how Dayton thus did not bring about an inclusive peace, nor a peace that was “gender-just” (to use Annika Bjorkdahl’s words). UNSCR 1325 has certainly offered a framework for demanding women’s inclusion at similar peace processes.

On the other hand, Rwanda’s peace was secured through the military victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). This meant that there wasn’t a formal peace negotiation process (although the Arusha Accords, signed in 1993 before the genocide, became much of the framework for the new government and the constitutional re-drafting process). Instead, during the first few years after the genocide and war, the RPF was preoccupied with establishing security across the country and continued to pursue military operations in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A key difference between the cases, however, is that the RPF had a strong commitment to women’s inclusion that pre-dated UNSCR 1325. RPF leadership ensured women were included in the military and civilian arms of the party, as well as during the constitutional rewriting process. Then, less than 10 years after the end of the violence, Rwanda became famous for electing the world’s highest level of women to its parliament.  


What do you think the long-term impact of women’s inclusion in Rwanda’s post-war period has been so far? 

Since the 1994 genocide and war, Rwanda has rebuilt its governance institutions, policy frameworks, and laws to be supportive of gender equality and women’s inclusion. The result has been a meteoric rise of women in Rwandan government, along with a rise in women’s leadership in other sectors.

Yet it is important not to over-celebrate Rwanda’s achievements in this area. While women hold the world’s highest percentage of seats in Parliament, Rwanda is not a democratic country. Women like Victoire Ingabire and Diane Rwigara are currently in prison because they had the audacity to run for political office in opposition of President Paul Kagame’s rule.

All women—and men—face state surveillance and policing, limiting their ability to engage in meaningful work in civil society. Many women in Rwanda find it nearly impossible to find wage employment, growing land scarcity, and high rates of intimate partner violence. Despite the rhetoric of women’s empowerment, feminism remains a dirty word in the country.

Rwanda should cause us to pause and consider the way in which women’s inclusion—in peace processes, in politics, or even in business—is not sufficient to bring about women’s emancipation from gender oppression. As feminist scholars have argued, advancing gender equality will instead require radically reimagining the very institutions that produce inequality in the first place. Including women without reworking gender-oppressive institutions more broadly can ultimately obscure the way in which inequality and oppression are perpetuated.


How can we learn from these two case studies to improve the way women are included in the future?  Are there takeaway points that can be applied to other country contexts?

The key lesson from my research is that women are actively organizing and mobilizing in their households and communities during war; they therefore represent a tremendous, underutilized knowledge base that should be tapped to better inform transitions from violence to security. If international actors and policy makers center the expertise and knowledge of women directly affected by conflict—rather than assuming their victimization renders them solely in need of aid—we will strengthen the way in which we design post-conflict transitional justice and peacebuilding interventions.

Recent stories coming out of Syria, South Sudan, and elsewhere speak to the ways in which women’s mobilization during war is powerfully common across different episodes of violence. Lessons from the Bosnian and Rwandan cases can help inform humanitarian interventions as these conflicts unfold. One finding from my research is that humanitarian aid is often given out on the basis of victim identities. During (and after) the Bosnian war, for instance, many aid projects distributed aid to those determined to be in greatest need. Raped women and widows were identified as particularly vulnerable, and were therefore, targeted for particular forms of support.

The problem is that these initiatives created hierarchies of victimhood, which precluded certain people from receiving support, and gave support to others because of particular wartime experiences. Women’s groups fractured, as women with particular victim identities could better compete for aid if they established their own group (e.g., a group of rape survivors, or a group of mothers who had lost children). This undermined much of the strength of women’s organizing during the war, which, had it been supported and championed, would have supported the cultivation a robust, democratic, and inclusive civil society to support the country’s transition from war to peace.


In your opinion, what is it that makes peace processes that include women or other marginalized groups succeed, and how is that success different from peace processes that fail to be fully inclusive?

Another way of thinking about this question is to ask what we risk by not ensuring inclusive and equitable peace-processes.

Since the end of the Cold War, 40 percent of civil wars have relapsed into conflict again within 10 years. This means that our conventional models for peacebuilding are inadequate. Peace processes succeed when they don’t merely aim to establish a ceasefire, but rather seek to address the deep, intersecting wounds that brought about the conflict in the first place. To do so requires the inclusion of communities that have suffered from injustice and historical marginalization—in many cases, women, ethnic or religious minorities, indigenous communities, and others. And it is critical that this inclusion be substantive, rather than simply pro forma. It is only with substantive inclusion can the grievances and needs of these communities be heard.


What do your findings on women’s inclusion in peace processes mean for the Women, Peace and Security agenda?  How are they relevant to the way we view global security and which actors should be at the table?

The UN’s Women, Peace, and Security agenda has been a landmark effort to champion women’s inclusion during transitions from war to security. It has proven to be a valuable policy and discursive framework for women across the global to advocate for their presence in peace processes, security forces, and politics. Gendering transitions from war to stability will be essential to helping peace “stick,” and this will require paying attention to how people with different degrees of marginalization or privilege are able to foreground their needs and grievances throughout the course of the transition.

People often talk about the importance of “getting women to the table.” And I absolutely agree, getting women involved in formal peace processes will be vital to the success of the peace. But I am also worried by the exclusive emphasis on women’s inclusion, because—as I’ve noted above—it can satisfy demands to adhere to norms about gender quality, while preventing any real transformation from taking place.

Moreover, as I’ve written about with Milli Lake, women’s inclusion always deserves careful scrutiny in contexts where rights and freedoms are granted selectively against a backdrop of otherwise oppressive practices. In Rwanda, for instance, women’s inclusion was instrumentalized by the regime to distract attention from its ethnic consolidation and authoritarian practices. In other cases, women’s inclusion in politics or formal peace processes has effectively neutralized civil society, as the strongest leaders of the women’s movement find themselves confined within their new institutional roles. This draws our attention to what Cynthia Enloe has recently called “the persistence of patriarchy”: despite changes marked as progress for women, patriarchy finds ways of reinserting its grip under the new conditions.

In the book I write about a revitalization of patriarchy after war; while patriarchal norms can be suspended during violence as women take on new roles and experience physical separation from male family members, in the aftermath, such norms can reemerge with renewed strength. Women I interviewed in both Rwanda and Bosnia identified an uptick in gender-based violence after war as reaction to their postwar economic and political gains. Effectively mitigating the brutalities of patriarchy will require approaches to peace and security that move beyond women’s inclusion to also consider how patriarchal systems can be challenged and dismantled.

One way to begin this process would be to consider how victimhood is a status that is produced within systems of power. Whose victimhood is made visible, and whose is rendered invisible, shapes the prospects for community healing, reconciliation, and peace after war—and should inform our understanding of whose voices should be centered in peace process and transitional justice initiatives. In addition, champions of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, especially from within governments and militaries, might consider how to better harness the work that women are doing to claim rights and mobilize in their local communities, outside of formal peace processes or political institutions. Centering the voices, expertise, and power of local women with multiple and intersecting identities will help guide policy interventions that build more equitable, democratic, and peaceful societies going forward.